The combo of wink-wink naughtiness and family-friendly sentimentality makes for a wildly uneven farce in “How to Be a Latin Lover,” as a middle-aged male gold-digger attempts a reconciliation with his estranged sister and nephew — when he isn’t busy looking for his next sugar mama, that is. It’s another hand-tooled star vehicle for Mexican TV actor/personality Eugenio Derbez, whose phenomenally popular 2013 comedy “Instructions Not Included” holds the record for being the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever released in the United States. This follow-up effort, a largely English-language feature, isn’t likely to make lightning strike twice in terms of generating consumer demand. To give it fair due, however, there are some very funny bits and pieces scattered amid the proceedings, along with a few darkly comical gags that appear to belong in a different movie, but are more than welcome here.
Much like Jack Benny, Maximo (Derbez) continues to insist he is 39 long after surpassing that milestone, one of many indulgences he enjoys as the pampered husband of Peggy (Renée Taylor), a considerably older, fabulously wealthy multimillionaire. Just how pampered are we talking about? As Maximo reads his iPad while relaxing in a bubble bath, a butler remains close by to swipe pages back and forth for him. Unfortunately, Maximo’s youthful sex appeal has exceeded its shelf life, making it easy for a much younger car salesman (Michael Cera, whose casting as a seductive boy toy qualifies as one of the movie’s slyest jokes) to win Peggy’s affections, and boot Maximo — who foolishly signed a prenuptial agreement before marrying into money — out of his comfort zone.
Lacking financial resources and conventionally marketable work skills, Maximo seeks shelter with his sister, Sara (Salma Hayek), a widowed mom who’s struggling for advancement as an architect at her L.A. firm. Things are a bit awkward at first, since Maximo hasn’t bothered to sustain family ties for quite a while. Indeed, it comes as a surprise to him that Sara’s husband actually is dead, and her 10-year-old offspring, Hugo (Raphael Alejandro), is a boy, not a girl. In no time at all, however, Maximo endears himself to Hugo, if not his skeptical sister, by coaching his nerdy nephew in the fine arts of sweet talk and studly swagger, to make the boy more appealing to a pretty young classmate he’s been crushing on. Of course, Maximo’s mentoring isn’t entirely selfless: He has his eye on the girl’s zillionaire grandmother (Raquel Welch), and figures Hugo may help him regain access to the good life.
Working from a script by Chris Spain and Jon Zack, director Ken Marino (“Childrens Hospital”) has the good fortune to be working with a star who is not just willing but downright eager to make himself the butt of so many jokes about spoiled self-entitlement and clueless egocentricity. The pace of the movie is too leisurely by half, but Derbez helps to periodically jumpstart the flaccid narrative by making himself a living-and-breathing punchline — especially in a sequence that cleverly references “American Gigolo” — and developing a credibly spiky give-and-take with Hayek. It helps that Derbez also works well with young Alejandro. But it helps just as much that “How to Be a Latin Lover” doesn’t insist on Maximo’s being “redeemed” at the end of the story.
When it comes to amping the amusement quotient, Derbez doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting. Rob Huebel and Rob Riggle earn some laughs as a dumb and dumber pair of low-lifes intent on dunning Maximo for an overdue debt, and Rob Lowe demonstrates his good sportsmanship through spirited self-mockery as Rick, another over-age boy toy who works hard for the money. Kristen Bell is sweetly ditzy — but most assuredly not stupid — as the cat-loving manager of a yogurt shop where Maximo finds employment almost in spite of himself. Welch earns points for gamely turning herself into the movie’s most shocking sight gag, while Linda Lavin will delight anyone who ever had lustful thoughts about her character in TV’s “Alice” (you know who you are) with her brazenly assured portrayal of Rick’s demandingly kinky meal ticket. It should also be noted that seldom, if ever, has any movie relied on the raw sex appeal of Rob Corddry, cast as Welch’s chauffeur, to assist in providing a satisfying conclusion.